Rita Angus Chronology
From: Rita Angus: Life and Vision, William McAloon and Jill Trevelyan (ed), Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2008 (Reproduced by kind permission of the Authors and Te Papa Press)
Henrietta Catherine Angus was born in Hastings on 12 March 1908, the eldest of seven children of William McKenzie Angus, a carpenter, and his wife Ethel Violet Angus, née Crabtree. Three weeks after Rita’s birth the family moved to Palmerston North, and she attended primary school both there and in Napier according to where her father was contracted. Aware of her talents-‘Rita drew as soon as she could hold a pencil and never stopped’1 -her parents arranged for her to have private art lessons while she was still a child.
Moving to Christchurch in February 1927, Angus enrolled at the Canterbury College School of Art and boarded at the Bishop Julius Hall in nearby Cranmer Square. Under the guidance of her tutors, Richard Wallwork, Archibald Nicoll, Cecil Kelly and Leonard Booth, she received a sound traditional art training with an emphasis on fine draughtsmanship and close observation of nature. Her studies at the school continued, with interruptions, until 1933.
As a student at Palmerston North Girls’ High School, the young Rita enjoyed art classes and took a keen interest in history and mathematics. She later admitted, ‘I spent much of my time, dreaming and drawing in my schoolbook.’2 In 1926 she matriculated and in the same year her father established a business, W.M. Angus Ltd, which eventually became one of New Zealand’s leading construction companies.
Exhibiting for the first time with the Canterbury Society of Arts, her Self-portrait (1929) was praised by the influential critic James Shelley. On 13 June she married fellow artist Alfred Cook, and travelled with him to Auckland to attend A.J.C. Fisher’s classes at the Elam School of Art.
Returning to Christchurch early in 1931, Angus continued to study part-time at the School of Art while pursuing her interest in modern art. During the following winter she and Alfred Cook spent several weeks in Napier, where she sketched the ruins of the 1931 earthquake in watercolours such as Blythe’s Buildings, Napier. This was one of the works she exhibited in her début at The Group’s annual exhibition in 1932.
In February her sister Jean moved to Christchurch to attend art school, sharing a house with Rita and Alfred and other members of the Cook family in Ferry Road. Angus taught art part-time at the girls’ preparatory school Selwyn House and painted her important early work, The Aviatrix, a portrait of her sister Edna.
During the winter months she developed a faulty heart valve and was nursed by Jean Angus: ‘I was seriously ill and five days on the verge of dying.’3 After her recovery she and her husband decided to separate. Later in the year she began to earn her living as a commercial artist, ‘learning to be one, and adjust myself without home, hostel or marriage to protect me’.4 In her private life she adopted the name ‘Rita Mackenzie’ (after her grandmother’s maiden name), but continued to sign her pictures ‘Rita Cook’.
Living in central Christchurch, Angus worked mainly as an illustrator for the Press Junior and began a four-year relationship with bank clerk Harvey Gresham. ‘After a struggle and disliking intensely commercial art, I took a tiny studio in Chancery Lane, things got better for me, more Press Junior work, and I became more known in the commercial world.’5
In May she spent ten days at Cass with her friends Louise Henderson and Julia Scarvell, and painted its tiny railway station back in her studio. She began Self-portrait, which was exhibited, with two ‘Cass’ works, at the Canterbury Society of Arts Durham Street Gallery in the following year. In November 1936 she moved to a studio flat at 97a Cambridge Terrace in central Christchurch, where she painted Fay and Jane Birkinshaw and Cleopatra. She quit the Press Junior and joined the staff of Ballantynes department store as a fashion illustrator, a position she retained until April 1938. Later she remarked that the work made her feel ill because it prevented her from painting.6
In February her friends Leo Bensemann and Lawrence Baigent moved into the adjacent flat at 97b Cambridge Terrace, and she and Bensemann shared models and painted each other. In July she visited her friend Marjorie Marshall at Wanaka and made a series of watercolours there; on her return she began a portrait of Marshall. In this same year—one of her most stimulating and productive— she also saw an exhibition of contemporary Canadian painting, toured to New Zealand by the National Gallery of Canada.
After leaving Cambridge Terrace in March, Angus spent several months at Wanaka; back in Christchurch, she held an exhibition of her Central Otago watercolours just before the outbreak of war. Not a single work sold. In mid-September she went to stay with her friends Betty and Allen Curnow in Riccarton, helping out with housework and childcare for six weeks before moving to a flat of her own in November. She wrote to her sister Jean, who shared her pacifist convictions: ‘I fear I may come to serious trouble with my family for I am a[n] idealistic socialist.’7 In this year her divorce from Alfred Cook became official and her sister Edna died from an asthma attack on Christmas Eve.
Angus painted Central Otagoand Portrait of Douglas Angus while designing toys for her pacifist friend Gordon McArthur. Cass and Self-portrait (1936–37) were included in the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art which toured the country.
Determined to avoid work which was classified as essential to the war effort, she picked tobacco at Pangatotara before moving to Wellington in July to design toys for a pacifist organisation, the Woodkraft Co-operative Society. She met the young composer Douglas Lilburn, and when he returned to Christchurch she followed soon afterwards. Conceiving a child with Lilburn in late October, Angus began two outstanding works: Mother and Child (Jean and Anton Jones) and Portrait of Betty Curnow. In late January 1942 she suffered a miscarriage. Leaving Christchurch in May, after officially changing her name to ‘Rita Mackenzie’, she stayed at her parents’ home in Napier until November. From there she wrote to Lilburn, ‘I am quietly regaining my virginity because I wish to serve the arts.’8
Staying at a friend’s bach at Wainui on Banks Peninsula during the summer, Angus painted a series of watercolours, including Haycocks, Wainui. In March her father, concerned about her welfare, purchased a cottage in which she could live rent-free: a property at 18 Aranoni Track, Clifton, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Later in the year she visited her sister Jean in Greymouth—where she painted Tree—and her parents, who had recently moved to Waikanae. She wrote to Lilburn, ‘. . . I’ve grown weary of the militarist world, and I’m content to live quietly, painting . . . I haven’t any desire for success or the limelight, and no further wish to explain myself.’9
From February to May Angus picked apples at the Riverside Community at Upper Moutere, Nelson, where she conceived the idea for Dona Nobis Pacem. Back in Christchurch, she appeared before the Industrial Manpower Appeal Committee at the Magistrate’s Court on 30 October after refusing to work in a factory to support the war effort. She articulated her position in a formal statement: ‘I object to direction into essential industry on the grounds that I am a conscientious objector to war, and, as an artist, it is my work to create life and not to destroy.’ Her case was dismissed and she was ordered to report for work, but continued to ignore the directions.
Angus began the first two paintings in the ‘goddess’ series, which expressed her vision for a pacifist, multicultural future in New Zealand. Summoned to appear a second time before the Manpower Appeal Committee on 4 July 1945, she was fined for refusing to comply with her directions. ‘As a full time painter’, she wrote, ‘I am proceeding with the various stages of my large canvases, the major works of my lifetime.’10 In May 1946 Angus began the third work in the ‘goddess’ series: ‘The second Sun Goddess is born, in watercolour, she is beautiful, and brings peace.’11 She held two small solo exhibitions in Christchurch, at the Student Union tearoom at Canterbury University College and the Coffee Pot Café in New Regent Street, and attended the National Peace Conference in the city in October.
Her work was featured in an article in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand, in which she articulated her aims: ‘To show to the present a peaceful way, and through devotion to visual art to sow some seeds for possible maturity in later generations.’ After seventeen years of signing her paintings ‘Rita Cook’, she changed her signature to ‘Rita Angus’.
When Frances Hodgkins’s paintings were rejected for the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Angus took a keen interest in the ensuing debate and donated twelve guineas towards a fund to purchase Pleasure Garden (1932) for the civic collection. She completed luminous watercolours such as Seascape in Heatwave, but her health remained poor. In October she was found wandering the streets of Sumner, disorientated, and taken to Sunnyside Hospital for assessment. She responded quickly to treatment and was released on ‘trial leave’ into her family’s care nearly two months later.
Angus spent the year with her parents at Waikanae, recuperating from her illness. By July she was able to report to Douglas Lilburn, ‘The pressure, confusion & strain of those years has quite gone.’12 She painted Waterlilies and began a series of Maori portraits, returning to Christchurch in December. In the following year she completed Rutu during a visit to Waikanae in January–February, and exhibited at the French Maid Coffee Shop in Wellington in July.
Rutu and Central Otago were included in an exhibition in London, Fifteen New Zealand Painters, organised by the Wellington art dealer Helen Hitchings. Angus began to produce commissioned drawings for the School Journal and received an allocation of shares in her father’s construction company. In July she gave a lecture on art to the Workers’ Educational Association in Wellington in which she noted, ‘Art is essentially simple and an expression of emotion. The first duty of the artist being to find beauty in everyday life, to express this for the benefit of all mankind, which is the basis of all art.’13
With funds provided by Douglas Lilburn, she made a sketching trip to Central Otago in February and began a major project: a large composite oil of the region. During the winter months she visited her friends Roy and Joyce Milligan at Mangonui in Northland and exhibited Mangonui related works with The Group, including Landscape with Arum Lily. In December she travelled north again, visiting her parents, who had recently relocated to Napier, en route to Mangonui. During her second stay at Mangonui, Angus decided to move there permanently. By October 1954 she was living there in a seaside cottage, preparing a vegetable garden and making watercolour studies of the surrounding landscape.
After her plans to purchase a property in Mangonui fell through, Angus left Northland in April and stayed with family and friends in Wellington. In November she purchased a cottage at 194a Sydney Street West in Thorndon with funds from the sale of the Clifton property. ‘The light is beautiful,’ she observed of the capital. ‘There seems to be a fusion of the colder south and the warmth of the far north of New Zealand to be found in the light and colour about Wellington.’14 Early in the year the Robert McDougall Art Gallery purchased Cass—her first sale to a major public collection.
In 1956 she completed Central Otagoand gifted it to Douglas Lilburn. In the following year she held her largest solo exhibition to date: a collection of forty-three works, including St Luke, which were shown at the Architectural Centre Gallery in Wellington. She sold nineteen works, for a total of 12 guineas.
As the recipient of an Association of New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship, Angus, who had recently turned fifty, was able to travel overseas for the first time. Arriving in London in August, she attended numerous exhibitions, both contemporary and historical, and enrolled in part-time life-drawing classes at the Chelsea School of Art. In New Zealand, her work was included in the Auckland Art Gallery’s major touring exhibition Eight New Zealand Painters. In 1959 she visited Cornwall, Scotland and the Continent, writing home to her sister Jean: ‘I have done a lot in my stay, I love the work & it is also easier overseas as it is traditional for a painter to devote their time to their work, & a liberal atmosphere to work in. I thrive in this way . . .’15 In August she returned to Wellington.
In June Angus accepted a commission to paint a mural, commemorating the girls who had died in the 1931 earthquake, for the Napier Girls’ High School Assembly Hall. The 4.2 x 4.8-metre work was unveiled in December. Spurred on by her research into mural techniques, she began an intensive study of the craft of oil painting which lasted for several years.
In July 1961 she held a solo exhibition at the Centre Gallery in Wellington (formerly the Architectural Centre Gallery); works included Self-portrait with Fruit, one of a number of watercolours inspired by her cottage and garden. In the following year she developed severe back pain and was treated with physiotherapy at Wellington Hospital.
Her major oil, Journey, Wellington was rejected by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts for its annual exhibition. She resigned from the academy and never exhibited there again, protesting her right ‘to paint as I wish in the 20th Century’.16
After visiting her nephew’s family at Maungataniwha in February–March, Angus returned to her studio to paint Scrub Burning, Northern Hawke’s Bay. During the winter she became fascinated by the night sky as the moon passed a series of planets, and began a series of nocturnal landscapes including Moon (Leaf Series). In this and the following years she turned down invitations to exhibit in newly established dealer galleries, preferring to retain her complete independence. The National Art Gallery purchased its first work by Angus in 1967: Self-portrait (1966). In March the following year she held a joint exhibition at the Centre Gallery with her sister, Jean Jones, and sister-in-law, Timmy Angus. Her works exhibited with The Group in October included At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge and two ‘Sheds, Hawke’s Bay’ subjects.
In July her father died at the age of eighty-five, leaving her temporarily bereft. Back problems and ill-health took a toll on her working hours, but she continued to complete major oils such as Fog, Hawke’s Bay and AD 1968, both of which were exhibited at Victoria University in Wellington in October. Late in the year, with her friend Juliet Peter, she began to make weekly sketching expeditions to the Bolton Street cemetery as it was razed to make room for a new motorway.
Preoccupied with a series of new works featuring the headstones from Bolton Street cemetery, she painted her last completed picture, Flight, in early winter. From July she suffered from recurring bouts of illness, but even when she was hospitalised in November she was reassuring friends: ‘though limp & weak am now able to eat a little, am on the mend’.17 From December, however, she deteriorated rapidly.
Angus died from cancer in Wellington Hospital on 25 January.
1 Jean Jones quoted by Olive Baylyn, in Katie Pickles (ed.), Hall of Fame: Life Stories of New Zealand Women, Christchurch: Clerestory Press, 1998, p.30.
2 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 2 July 1943, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-050.
3 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 10 August 1946, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-061.
4 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 10 May 1943, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-053.
5 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 10 May 1943, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-053.
6 Douglas Lilburn, unpublished memoir of Rita Angus, ATL, MS-Papers-2483-104.
7 Rita Angus, letter to Jean Jones, 5 August 1939, ATL, MS-Papers-8636-003.
8 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 12 June 1942, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-050.
9 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, not dated [10 May 1943], ATL, MSPapers-7623-053.
10 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 7 July 1945, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-058.
11 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, not dated [May 1946], ATL, MSPapers-7623-060.
12 Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 1 July 1950, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-069.
13 Art lecture, 1952, ATL, MS-Papers-1399-3/3.
14 ‘Wellington Charms an Artist From Christchurch’, Dominion, 13 May 1957, p.6.
15 Rita Angus, letter to Jean Jones, 18 June 1959, ATL MS-Papers-8636-003.
16 Rita Angus, draft letter to Dr. Mercer, president, NZAFA, 30 April 1964, ATL MS-Papers-1399-1/2.
17 Rita Angus, letter to Doris Lusk, not dated [November 1969], ATL MSPapers-5887.